A theology of place
Constructing a theology of place: an experiment in theological method.
This is an edited version of a webconversation on a website I used to run in September 2004. I include it here partly just so that it isn't lost (!) and partly because how to be local is precisely one of the big issues every deanery has to work through.
ANDY: I've been reading John Inge's A Christian Theology of Place (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003). I'll be honest, it's not light reading. But it's enthused me about places, their significance, and the need for the emerging church to think about this. Hence a set of posts, of which this is the first.
Inge begins by pointing out the way that modernism has tended to downgrade 'place' as a category. By maps,
'Space is rationalised as homogenous and divided into identical units.' (p7) thus 'this devaluation of space has prevailed for generations. Space was treated as the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile. Time, on the other hand, was richness, fecundity, life.' (p11, quoting Foucauld).
Thus we naturally think of our 'generation' as being crucial in influencing our worldview, ('she would think like that, she's a boomer'), and don't tend to see our place as equally important.
But in almost all areas of discourse, place is coming back into fashion. Feminism has questioned the assumption that places can be 'objectified' and dominated by 'Man', where the map is king and the itinerary has been displaced. Foucault has pointed out that the powerful have a vested interest in devaluing the local and glorifying the imperial. Heidegger calls us back to the discipline of 'just being there', 'dwelling', and denounces 'this uniformity in which everything is neither far nor near... in uniform distancelessness'. David Harvey and Edward Soja (author of a book called Thirdspace) call for an economics where priority is given to the local, while Margaret Rodman is making place central to ethnography.
'People like [the phenomenologist Edward] Casey are enabling us to see that modernism has had inherent in it from the beginning a universalism which... is most starkly evident in the search for ideas, labelled essences, that obtain everywhere and for which a given somewhere is presumably irrelevant.' (p14) Even a British government white paper in 2000 called for more attention to 'place' in architecture, social planning and community relations.
Meanwhile, the church is one step behind the dance, still buying into modernism's devaluing of place. This is true, as Inge points out, of evangelicalism. When 'formulae' from Willow Creek (or wherever) are imposed on communities with entirely different dynamics; when churches are founded whose members travel past the doors of twenty other places of worship before arriving at the church of their choice, which is far removed from the place they inhabit or work in; when cyberchurches imply that geography is entirely irrelevant to community; when evangelicals deliberately make their places of worship as unevocative as possible - place has been downplayed. But Inge blames Roman Catholicism for a similar de-valuing of the local, both because so many 'norms' are passed down from the centre and because Vatican II ushered in a devaluing of 'sacred space'.
Are you still reading? If so, three questions may arise in your mind: how does this fit with the biblical witness? How, in practice, can we re-value our space? And what does all this have to do with emerging church? I'll try and answer in future posts.
GEMMA: I so agree! I've thought for a long time that when alternative worship people say things like 'now let's make sacred space here at the front', they're doing something a lot more significant than they think. We may meet in homes and schools and rooms over shops, but that doesn't mean we can't make something special and different - it's not just a matter of having a few candles and icons around, it's about the attitude we hold to the place where we worship. JIM: gemma, i agree, but the thing that really gets me is the evangelicals who meet in this 800 year old building and try to act as if it was a room over a shop. wierd! MIKE: Now I'm confused. Gemma and Jim seem to be taking your post to mean that we should reinstate churches/shrines/etc as holy places, thin places, or what-have-you. I thought you (and Mr Inge) were talking more about creating real local theologies that emerge from the locality - like slime-mould, I imagine you'd say. Which is it? Or (thinking as I write), is it both? Maybe the value of making one 'sacred space' in the centre of a community is that it makes it possible for the whole community to see itself as holy?
ANDY: So modernism has devalued places; postmodernism tends to re-value the local; the church hasn't caught on to this yet. But how does the bible fit with this picture? One easy answer would be to say that the Old Testament does indeed value 'special places' - the Land, the Temple, Bethel, and so on - but that the New Testament universalizes. Think of 1 Peter: it's addressed to 'exiles scattered across Asia'; it describes Christians as aliens and strangers; surely it implies that there are no holy places any more, only a holy God and holy people?
Not so, says Inge, as he turns to examine the New Testament in what is, to me, the most significant section of his book. Certainly it is true that the blessing of God is no long tied to the land of Israel, or to the Temple. But this does not mean that place becomes irrelevant. How could it, when the hope for new heaven and new earth is central to the New Testament? How could it, when Christ became both incarnate and in-placed? As has often been said, the incarnation re-values the body and the material; but it also re-values the particular and the local. In O'Donovan's words,
The transitory promises of particular election, upon which Old Testament faith is based, are not abolished by Christian faith into pure universality, but... they become the matrix for the forms in which God universally meets humankind. It is still true that human beings meet God within relations of particular belonging; for this reason the church has always to be structured as a local church; yet God is not tied to any one particular other than the name of Jesus, but can make himself known through many and through all...' (Inge p54)
To me, this is exciting and important. Places have not lost their significance; now, every place is significant! 1 Peter is a case in point (and now I rely on commentaries, particularly Pheme Perkins, more than on Inge). I got to know a little Greek at college (he ran a kebab shop on Headington Hill), so here are some Greek terms:
oikia - a house
oikos - a household, home - a key term in 1 Peter
paroikos - 'alien', someone from another home. Here the controversy begins. Should it be translated 'refugee'? It's often used to translate the Henrew ger, an exile, and the image is certainly alive in 1 Peter. Or should it be translated 'colonist', to refer to someone who came voluntarily to Asia Minor to 'romanise' it? Some recent scholarship refuses to choose between the two, and suggests that the function of 1 Peter is exactly to change the worldview of the readers so that they no longer see themselves as exiles, displaced persons who because of their minority religious status 'didn't fit in' with Asia Minor society, but instead empbrace a destiny as colonists - colonists, as it were, of the New World. Their vocation was to fit into, transform and lead their society into God's future.
paroikia - a collection of resident aliens, a colony. This is the word that gives us the English terms 'parish' and 'parochial'. To be parochial is to be concerned with your locale - understanding it, blessing it, etc. - and yet to be distinct from it for the sake of the other kingdom. Every place matters! And here the emerging church, potentially, steps into its own.
JOEL: ...and yet the postmodern world is not divided any longer into parishes and neighborhoods. my community includes cyberfriends i've never met and people in different countries, it doesn't include practically any of the people who live near me. maybe you think this is a bad thing, but it's the way i live, and i wouldn't be attracted to a church that said it was for the lower north side or whatever.
GEMMA: So maybe you need to rediscover the lower north side, if that's where you live. Maybe there is a church there which can help you to see how special it is. Maybe it can be like a 'sacred space' in the middle of that neighbourhood that gives it a sense of worth again.I have cyber-contacts too, but if I don't spend real time physically with them, I don't think I'd call them my friends. They won't give me a hug or cook for me when I'm sick or let me play with their children. Those are things my real (church) community does.
ANDY: Joel, can I challenge you to write about what makes the lower north side special? I came here to Galleywood at the end of January, missing my previous home enormously (admittedly my previous home was Paris, which may be a special case), and it took real effort to 'settle' here and value this particular place. It's made a difference to me, and I don't think I could now be happy in a church that was divorced from its place.
On the other hand, I do take your point that the world has changed a great deal since the parish system was set up, and we shouldn't be rigidly tied to it any longer. I'd love to hear your insight about how we can find a middle ground.
TRAVIS: Every time I visit this site, I feel like I have to re-think something! If you'd asked me last week if there were any 'special places' or 'holy places' I would have said that Jesus has abolished all of that. Now I wonder if I should be trying to make my neighborhood into a special place, with maybe a special church place in the center. Please keep making me think.
ANDY: The story so far: Modernism has tended to devalue place, and the church (by undervaluing both 'sacred space' and the local in theology and worship) has followed it. The Old Testament gives great emphasis to places, and the New Testament, far from abolishing 'special places', opens the possibility that any space can be special. It's a bit of a digression, but I thought the following piece, which draws shamelessly on Mike Starkey's Restoring the Wonder (London: Triangle, 1999), would illustrate something of what I mean. I wrote it for our parish magazine, so there are lots of local references, but that's kind of the point.
GALLEYWOOD PARISH MAGAZINE: Have you met Mr Shoulderman at a party recently? For a few seconds he chats with you as if you mattered - but before long he is looking over your shoulder, surveying the room. You realize he is looking for someone more interesting, influential or attractive than you are. You end up feeling dull and second rate. Yet the way Mr Shoulderman treats us is so often the way I treat Galleywood.
Don't get me wrong, I like it here. But sometimes I don't make much effort to develop a sense of belonging. Some people fantasise about escape; or we withdraw into our own semidetached planet (or even into our own head). Or onto the web, of course! Until Mr Shoulderman learns to give the guest before him his undivided attention, he will never find anyone in the room who is interesting. The key to restoring the wonder of place is to learn to see Galleywood with new eyes, to discover how to stop taking our neighbourhood for granted.
A day to restore your wonder
Take a day to encouter Galleywood afresh. Walk around the streets, looking more intently than you ever have before: at buildings, plants, people, etc. Find out about the history of the area. Learn to celebrate and be grateful for the distinctiveness of the village.
Essayist Annie Dillard learned how to do it. Listen to Dillard on Tinker Creek:
'The sun in the west illuminates the ground, the mountains, and especially the bare branches of trees, so that everywhere silver trees cut into the black sky like a photographer's negative of a landscape... Fifteen minutes later, another darkness is coming overhead fron the northwest; and it's here. Everything is drained of its light as though sucked.'
Well, I'm not Annie Dillard, but here are my thoughts on Galleywood: -there's a path running east-west, just north of the Margaretting road and parallel to it. Today I walked west along it further than I ever had before, and saw bullrushes as tall as my head before emerging into a clearing with high purple flowers. A fox was lying only two metres away and sprang to his feet when I approached. -there are 29 gnomes or similar ornaments in one small front garden on Brasiers Close. -the church was built in the middle of a race course to bring the Gospel into the midst of sin. Well, now the race course is in ruins, and the church stands tall - but the sin, of course, has morphed, not departed. -I live on a road called Roughtons, named after Rev Roughton, a Vicar of Galleywood. He once got pelted with rotten vegetables for bringing candles into the church and for introducing manual actions (not as scandalous as it sounds, it just means he lifted up the bread during the communion prayer). Then his successor-but-one removed the candlesticks (apparently fencing them and pocketing the proceeds). -As you read this, Galleywood is officially 130 years and one week old, even if most of our houses were erected in the 1970s. -There's a plaque inside the church in memory of those who dies in the services. Which always wants to make me ask 'evening services or morning services?'
Your list of special things about Galleywood will be different from mine. The point is - Galleywood is ours, and it needs us to value it. GK Chesterton writes of Pimlico, an unfashionable residential area in 1908:
'If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would arise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles... If a man loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence... Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.'
From wonder to praise
And what does all this have to do with the church? Well, two things, really. First, your sense of place (whether or not you're a churchgoer) can help us as we try to work out what kind of church we should be; we don't want to follow a formula from somewhere else, like a McDonalds franchise, we want to be right for Galleywood. So please tell us what sort of church you think the village needs. And second, when you spend your day noticing Galleywood, a sense of wonder will grow within you which will need to be expressed as praise. That's one of the things our services are there for - to give you an opportunity to praise. The spire points you upwards towards God - who thinks Galleywood, like every place, is special, too.
JOEL: i started checking out emergent church because it seems like it could be a way to have church without all the religion. i think a lot of people would find that beautiful. the first christians didn't have special places, they met in houses and caves and at the gate, and they fixed their eyes on things above, not on things nearby. sure, they loved their neighborhood, but i do'nt think they saw it as more special than other people's neighborhoods. i'd love your thoughts on this because a lot of what you say about church vision coming from the people not the hierarchy fits so well with the way i think.
God gives all men all earth to love,But, since man's heart is small,Ordains for each one spot shall prove Beloved over all. Rudyard Kipling, Sussex.
Joel, are you sure you're not just trying to avoid writing that piece about the lower north side?
To be an american is to move on, as if we could outrun change. To attach oneself to place is to surrender to it, and suffer with it. Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk
CAROLINE: Joel, I have not looked into it carefully, but I wonder whether or not the early Christians did meet soley in caves, outside etc. Seeing as they were largely Jewish, would they not have met in the Temple? In which case there would have been many traditions and rites that formed part of their worship, as well as hierarchy. Does anyone know anymore about this?Also, they fixed their attention on the things above, but also on the things below. Otherwise they would have missed out on all that sharing out of possessions like at pentecost, or healing the sick and feeding the poor. Does anyone else ever feel that we spend so much time looking up at heaven that we forget that we're meant to be bringing it to earth? Wouldn't that be really loving our neighbourhood? I'd be interested to hear comments.Night all. It's late here in Le Perreux.
ANDY: Caro and Gemma: doesn't Joel have a point that what people today are looking for is global spirituality rather than something too linked a)to the local or b)to thge 'worldly'?
GEMMA: I'm afraid people who want a religious movement not linked to particular places or to the planet we live on should choose a different religion. Christianity is about a real baby in Bethlehem and a real death in Jerusalem and a real heaven with bodies in it.
JOEL: i'm not saying jesus wasn't or isn't a real man, or bethlehem didn't happen. i just mean that places don't matter as much as people. i am planning write about my neighborhood, but it'll be the people that i talk about. i want them to find christ and i don't care if they find him in a grand cathedral or a little hut. i don't think god does either. but i don't think He wants them to be told by christians that they ought to choose another religion.
AARON: I think I can see both sides of the issue. Joel, you're absolutely right; I think the first Christians did just meet in homes and catacombs. But I guess they made the rooms in the homes special in some way, and when they met in catacombs they used the tombs of martyrs as their holy table (and that's pretty near to a shrine already). Again, Joel, I do agree that it's the people who count. I pastor a free church in Kent, and we do meet in a hut! But because we want to be a church for the whole community we're in, and give it some value, we try to make the hut a bit of a shrine, at least on Sunday mornings.
JEN: How does a place become holy? How do we make a shrine? (A real one, not the sort we make at alt. worship events - they're not shrines in this sense).
ANDY: aren't they?
ERROL MUELER: From the letter to Diognetus, from an unknown writer, from the second century (probably within 40 years of the death of John).
"For Christians are not differentiated from other people by country, language or customs; you see, they do not live in cities of their own, or speak some strange dialect, or have some peculiar lifestyle.
This teaching of theirs has not been contrived by the invention and speculation of inquisitive men; nor are they propagating mere human teaching as some people do. They live in both Greek and foreign cities, wherever chance has put them. They follow local customs in clothing, food and other aspects of life. But at the same time, they demonstrate to us the wonderful and certainly unusual form of their own citizenship.
They live in their own native lands, but as aliens; as citizens, they share all things with others; but like aliens, suffer all things. Every foreign country is to them as their native country, and every native land as a foreign country.
They marry and have children just like everyone else; but they do not kill unwanted babies. They offer a shared table, but not a shared bed. They are at present ?in the flesh' but they do not live ?according to the flesh'. They are passing their days on earth, but are citizens of Heaven. They obey the appointed laws, and go beyond the law in their own lives.
They love every one, but are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and gain life. They are poor and yet make many rich. They are short of everything and yet have plenty of all things. They are dishonored and yet gain glory through dishonor.
Their names are blackened and yet they are cleared. They are mocked and bless in return. They are treated outrageously and behave respectfully to others. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when punished they rejoice as if being given new life. They are attacked by Jews as aliens, and are persecuted by Greeks; yet those who hate them cannot give any reason for their hostility.
To put it simply -- the soul is to the body as Christians are to the world. The soul is spread through all parts of the body and Christians through all the cities of the world. The soul is in the body but is not of the body; Christians are in the world but not of the world."
These words from someone who might have been alive at the time of the apostles reassure me that specialized religious buildings ('shrines') or a special priestly caste are not needed for true christianity. As you say yourself, every place is special - to say that some (because they have a spire or candles or have been prayed in for many years) are more special than others is mere superstition. Find out about home worship on http://www.homeworship101.com/
JOEL: here's what i've found about my district of Providence, RI. i called it the lower north side, this site calls it the Valley. i'm working on a more poeitc description.http://www.providenceri.com/Neighborhoods/valley.html
BISHOP JOHN INGE: Dear Andy,
Thank you for taking my musings seriously - I had hoped that they might be of some use in proclaiming the gospel and it's good to see it suggested that they might be.
ANDY: I'm really pleased to see how much comment this theme has evoked. There seem to be two main themes coming out: a) the theme of 'shrines' - whether they're helpful and how they might be created. b) the theme of giving value to neighbourhoods. Interestingly, these two themes are the subject of the final two chapters of Inge's book. Let's look at them in turn.
a) Shrines. Jim wants us to keep some of our ancient buildings as shrines; Aaron and Gemma want to make new ones; Rev. Mueller feels that this is 'merely superstitious'; Jen suspects that alternative worship-type shrines aren't 'the real thing' anyway. Personally I find Mike's thoughts the most helpful of all: maybe one way of giving a community a sense of the 'specialness' of the place they live in is to have a sort of 'shrine' in the centre. But how do you make a shrine? Drawing on the Old Testament, Inge suggests that the key is a triangular relationship between God, the place, and people; a 'holy place' would be a place where people have encountered God in a special way. So (unlike other Middle Eastern cultures) 'High Places' or volcanoes or places with spectacular views are not seen as intrinsically holy -as Rev. Mueller says, this would be mere superstition; but Bethel is holy, for as long as the meeting between God and Jacob is remembered there. Inge accepts the idea of 'thin places', places where 'heaven' (?) is experienced as particularly close, only if the thinness is the memory of the encounter between God and human beings. So there cannot be a formula for 'making a shrine'; it's just a matter of working, praying, and giving space (!) for the Great Encounter. But it is possible, by our architecture and by the attitude we have towards the building, to make such an encounter more 'congruous'. We'd be saying, in effect, 'Crayford, here is a building that has been set aside in the midst of the community to be special. Yes, it's a tin hut, but if you join with us - and God graciously chooses to be encountered here - it will be for generations a sign to us all that he cares about this place.'
b) Neighbourhoods. This, to me, is much more important. As Gemma and Caroline both remind us, Christianity is a faith that puts a high value on the material and the specific - though Joel is right to say that persons and their relations have the highest value of all. The quotation from the epistle to Diognetus cited by Rev Mueller puts it well: "[Christians] live in both Greek and foreign cities, wherever chance has put them. They follow local customs in clothing, food and other aspects of life. ...Every foreign country is to them as their native country." Joel, it's exciting to hear that you're checking out your locality and looking for the wonder in it. The conversation has certainly made me even more determined to get to know Galleywood, so that the church I (and others) build here is not alien, but specific to this - special - place. I want to 'attach myself to place, surrender to it, suffer with it.' In the emergent church, we have at last a movement which is ready to work by getting a team of people from a locality together and setting them free to determine 'worship events' that express the place they're in as well as the God they adore; a movement that at its best is rediscovering a local theology that asks the local questions, uses the local imagery (think of the letters at the beginning of Revelation which are crammed full of images from the locality) and involves local people. At the very least, the next time I stand in a rented hall and say 'we're making sacred space here' I won't be spouting empty words.